The famous science fiction producer, George Pal (Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, Time Machine, 7 Faces of Dr. Loa), vividly brings to the silver screen an adaptation of the famous 1930s novel, ‘When Worlds Collide’ by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer. The visual spectacle is quite spectacular (and rightly won an Oscar that year for special effects). Although the acting is plagued by some pretty atrocious performances (Richard Derr as Randal for example), When Worlds Collide is still an enjoyable film despite being painfully dated and highly flawed.
If anything embodies the 1950s rugged optimistic individualism espoused by Heinlein and the like, When Worlds Collide is a shining beacon. Especially refreshing (although probably misplaced) is the optimism shown in corporations. When was the last time a movie plot describes a corporation providing the impetus (in massive amounts of cash) to save the human race? When have the CEOs of corporations voluntarily given huge sums of money even if they themselves are not going to be the saved? This bizarre corporate philanthropy is thankfully tempered by Rudolph Maté (the director) with a self-centered CEO who will only give his financial support if he can save his own skin…
A brief plot summary might be useful…
The story begins at an observatory in South Africa where Dr. Bronson discovers a extraterrestrial planet circling a star careening at ridiculous speeds towards earth and sends the photographs to Dr. Cole Hendron, in America. The world’s politicians don’t believe the Hendron’s story and with the help of the aforementioned corporations, he embarks on building his own space ship for the purpose of landing on the approaching planet. Eventually the help of a self-centered, crippled, industrialist Sidney Stanton is needed to complete the spaceship on time. A lottery is developed to pick the lucky 44 people from the hundreds and hundreds assisting in the creation of the vessel.
As is often the case, the interesting premise — the construction of an Ark to save humanity and Earth’s various species — is side stepped for a silly romantic triangle between Hendron’s daughter, Joyce, Randall and Drake. However, Joyce’s character is quite interesting since clearly her father has taught her the ins-and-outs of running an observatory and all the math. For a female character of the 50s, she seems quite intelligent, although her desire for the unqualified Randall to be among those guaranteed to be among the 44 selected for the flight smacks of complete and utter self-righteousness in the face of the potential destruction of the human race.
Remember, we are not dealing with the realm of hard-science fiction. The probability of the very planet threatening earth being able to supporting human life is utterly preposterous. And yes, there’s not a single minority among those lucky 44 — now that I think about it, there’s not a single African-American to be seen.
However, we are in it for the ride! The explosions! The rocket launch! And, at the end we get to giggle uncontrollable at the painted alien landscape backdrop…. Fun fun fun. To bad Pal’s Conquest of Space was such a commercial disaster for a sequel was in the works…. And with alien landscape backdrops like that, it would have been worth watching!